Reporter on the road: science nomads: the postdoc journey is half the fun

7 December 2017
​Nomad (noun). A person who wanders from place to place to find fresh pasture for their livestock. Postdocs
are probably the academic equivalent of nomads, wandering from place to place, always looking for a new
challenge or a fresh start. But when that green grass shrivels after a few seasons (grants unfortunately have
end dates), he/she is on the move again.

First, you studied for five years at your university. You struggled through a PhD for four to five additional years. You are officially not a student anymore. Hello adult life!
After that point, I personally wanted to pursue an academic career. Onto the next step: a postdoc. Luckily, I had already planned a bit in advance. I started inquiring about positions in my favorite labs early on, and eventually arrived at two options: Tennessee or California. Given the then small chance of a Trump presidency, I thought that maybe it was better to pick a blue over a red state, just to be on the safe side. Alright then, the end of my PhD was in sight, my future position was secured, what’s next?

It may come as no surprise, but even as well as I had planned the transition from my PhD training to my new postdoc position, actually getting there was way more frustrating and nerve-wracking than I had anticipated. The peer review of our paper took longer than expected. Finding jury members and a defense date was more difficult than predicted. In the meantime, organizing a conference was extremely time-consuming (who would have guessed?), and the list goes on. My February defense was pushed off until May. But could I start
applying for my visa to work in the US? To start the application process, I needed my PhD diploma or an official document stating that my jury members have approved the manuscript. Given some delay in the feedback from the jury members, I received that ‘surrogate diploma’ the week of my defense and was able to start the application in the last few days of my life as a PhD student. Ok, from now on things will go smoothly, right?

First came the IT problems at my new alma mater: “Our apologies, but we have to start the application process over because your form was lost in the system.” Can you believe it? Since I had already defended my PhD, the surrogate diploma was no good anymore, which meant waiting on my official diploma. More waiting. Another setback. I was pretty desperate at that time, but luckily, things progressed more smoothly from then on. I received my visa a few weeks later. The moment it dropped into my mailbox, I booked my tickets to the US. Finally, after months of struggling, I could head out to my fresh green pasture.

When I arrived here in the US and talked to other new postdocs, one thing immediately became clear: it’s always a messy process. The international office confirmed this. The start dates of postdoc contracts mostly get postponed once or twice. Visa issues are the most common problem. When I found a room to rent a few weeks ago, I had to help the owner empty the room and load all the stuff into the car of my predecessor. She is a postdoc just like me, but couldn’t move herself since she is still stuck in China due to problems with renewing her visa.

I planned on starting experiments immediately once in the lab, but I was then confronted with all the paperwork involved with moving abroad. It seemed to never end. What had I started?

I talked to my colleagues about it, and they reassured me. All of them had experienced the same problems and had to deal with the same frustrations as me. It just seems inherent to the process of starting a new life in another place. My fellow nomads dealt with the same obstacles and fought the same storm of paperwork, but eventually, all of them arrived at that fresh green pasture.

It is then that I realized that it was just a phase I had to go through. I could not force things to go smoothly. Worrying about things would only get me more frustrated. For five years, you dedicate all your efforts to finishing a PhD in order to be able to move on to the next step. I was so eager to start my postdoc, so focused on the destination. Too focused. Even worse, I forgot to enjoy the journey. When I travel, I love being on the road. Whether I’m backpacking, road tripping or hiking, I love to experience the journey. The destination is only half the fun. Why was I not doing this in my academic life? I had never thought of it before, but it became clear to me. I just finished my PhD. I am moving to a new country to start a new life. I am going to work in new, exciting environments. I should be proud of what I achieved. I should enjoy the new challenges, enjoy learning and experiencing all these new things!

It is something that we as young postdocs don’t always think about. We are often too focused on the annoying things associated with moving abroad, the uncertainties involved in life as science nomads. Sure, we need to think about these things from time to time, reexamine our approach, and reevaluate our options. But if there is one piece of advice I’d like to give to all PhD students out there who are close to achieving their goals, about to pursue new goals or embarking on new career paths: don’t forget to enjoy the moment, and although the road ahead might be bumpy, the journey is always half the fun.

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Steven Boeynaems is a VIB alumnus who worked at the Kevin Verstrepen Lab and the Ludo Van Den Bosch Lab. Recently he traded Belgium for the Californian sun. At Stanford University he keeps pursuing his passion for science and science communication.